- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

With "Elizabeth and Georgiana: The Duke and His Two Duchesses," Caroline Chapman revisits the Regency period's most famous menage a trois in order to give one of the players a better place in history. The threesome included the bewitching Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, her husband, the "vindictively sulky" but busy Duke of Devonshire and the demure Lady Elizabeth Foster, the focus of this book's revisionist zeal.
Until now, historians have tended to reserve their kindest words for the wildly popular and appealing Georgiana while Lady Elizabeth, as Ms. Chapman notes in her somewhat defensive introduction, has remained "accused of insincerity, opportunism, superficiality, promiscuity, greed, and relentless social ambition."
The author sets out to change that view by offering Bess' previously unpublished letters and journals 178 of them interlaced with descriptions of a dynamic age.
Each part of the book is constructed to allow Bess to have her say. Woven throughout descriptions of her dark childhood and upbringing, her doomed marriage, her alleged lack of maternal instincts, her continuing adulterous affair with her friend Georgiana's husband the duke and her abiding passion for the pair, Ms. Chapman presents Bess' (mostly forlorn) feelings and (somewhat giddy) judgments.
Readers will be gratified by Bess' expressions of love for her children, but less moved by her protestations of affection for her friend Georgiana, these being even taking into account the flourishes of the times uncomfortably extravagant.
Too often the reader cannot help but get the feeling that the lady doth protest too much and, like it or not, insincerity, opportunism, promiscuity, greed and relentless social ambition did seem to motivate her. But so did warmth, humor and sorrow.
Elizabeth Foster was born in 1758 to one of England's foremost families, the Herveys. She married young and not wisely to a man with whom she lived in a dark, cold house ("the dungeon") not of her liking and in which she was condemned to spend her days with "the continual presence of her aged father-in-law creeping about … in his clerical black." Her chance meeting with the Duke of Devonshire and his captivating wife Georgiana, changed her life forever.
After Bess left her failed marriage to Foster and surrendered her two young sons, (the husband had the legal right to claim custody of the children in the case of a formal separation) she took up residence at Devonshire House, the home of the duke and duchess, where she enjoyed phenomenal access to the leading lights of the day.
Georgiana was one year older than Bess. She was known for her "compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit and a singular gift for inspiring love in all who knew her. Even the principle commentators of the time [Horace Walpole, Mrs. Delany, Nathaniel Wraxall] who were not easily moved saluted her as a phenomenon." Within months of moving into Devonshire House "[Georgiana] transformed the sombre building on Picadilly into the most sought after venue for the Whig elite."
From this glittering social perch, which became her primary residence, Bess would record in her journal the unfolding events of the day from the Regency Crisis to the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars to more everyday matters such as debts and babies. Her jottings are interesting and often witty, but one often wonders about their relationship to the truth.
"Should I have placed such faith in the journals?" Ms. Chapman asks in the book's introduction. "Cynics will claim that journals are ideal vehicles for self-justification and self-obfuscation…" Well, this cynic says Ms. Chapman might have been wise to have approached the journals with a little more skepticism.
Trouble is that Ms. Chapman was not able to do much of that because she seems guided by a determination to organize the book in a way that will keep Bess in the best light possible, a perspective one supposes, that is wholly supported (shaped?) by Jane Dormer who is her coauthor. Ms. Dormer also happens to be the great-great-grand-daughter of Elizabeth's second child by the duke.
But, casting its agenda aside, the charms of this book, which are considerable, transcend the author's determination to whitewash a long ago challenged reputation and after so much time, and living in a different world, who are we to judge anyway? When the book is at its most affecting, which it often is, the credit belongs to Bess. Her voice is clear and one cannot help but be moved. One very touching passage involves her grief over the death of Adm.
Horatio Nelson, who had been keeping her informed of her eldest son's welfare during his service in the navy. "' I never felt more affected' Bess wrote, adding revealingly, 'but oh what it must be to lose one whom one so dearly loves … '"
Because Bess' roles are confined to wife, mother and mistress, there is much to be learned from what she says about these matters. But Ms. Chapman's bias intrudes. She does not hesitate to tip the scale in Bess' favor whenever she can, averring that Bess has suffered by comparison to Georgiana. As a corrective, she takes every opportunity to diminish Georgiana while building up Bess.
Georgiana's well known gambling problem an affliction that forced her into exile on the continent for a time is mentioned a few times too often, while Bess' abundance of maternal gifts are stressed over and over again even though she did not see her sons by Foster for 14 years and her oldest daughter by the duke did not know Bess was her mother until she was fully grown.
She seems to have suffered because of guilt over her adultery and she mourned when Georgiana died (the same year that William Pitt and Charles James Fox, Pitt's great adversary, took leave of this earth). But she also was happy to marry the Duke of Devonshire at last and then later after his death to devote herself to Cardinal Ercole Consalvi.
But the matter of the threesome remains. In Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana published a few years back, the biographer asserts that Bess may have done some rewriting of her journal in order to put herself in the best possible light. We will never know any more than we will know if Bess' affair with Georgiana's husband "aroused the Duke and increased his potency thus enhancing Georgiana's chances of producing a son" as Ms. Chapman asserts. After all these years, so much is hearsay, but how vivid it all is.

By Caroline Chapman in collaboration with Jane Dormer
John Wiley & Sons, $24.95, 288 pages, illus.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide